Laurie E. Cutting, Ph.D.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (National Center for Education Statistics 2015) and many other standardized tests, children are consistently underachieving in reading comprehension. For example, the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that 54% of 4th graders and 56% of 8th graders score below the Proficient level in reading. These statistics, in conjunction with new academic standards, indicate that knowing a child’s reading comprehension level is a critical component of classroom instruction. Assessing children’s reading comprehension levels either formally or informally is a typical back-to-school activity, especially for children in grades K–6.
Variables That Influence Comprehension
Although assessing reading comprehension may seem like a straightforward task, there are many aspects that need to be considered. As outlined in the RAND report (Snow, 2002), reading comprehension encompasses the reader, the text, and the activity. Reader is defined by what the child brings to a text, including cognitive processes such as facility with language and/or working memory. The text refers to what type of text a child is reading—is it a story or an informational text? Finally, the activity refers to the purpose of the reading task—the child might be reading for school or for pleasure. Each of these dimensions is important. For example, if a child is only reading for pleasure, the depth of knowledge and recall is much less demanding than for a text that is required for school. And, stories versus informational texts have different cognitive demands (as I discussed in this previous blog post).
How Assessment Formats Can Affect Outcomes
Yet, beyond these elements there is an additional critical factor to consider when assessing children’s comprehension: the format of the reading comprehension assessment. We can assess in a variety of ways, including multiple choice questions, free recall, cloze (where the child provides words that have been deleted from a text), or short answer questions. Studies have shown that each of these formats is actually quite different. For example, researchers (Keenan, Betjemann, & Olson, 2008) have shown that cloze format reading comprehension tests were linked with word-level skills (decoding), while free recall tests placed more demands on listening comprehension. In the most extreme case, one reading comprehension test might actually show that a child is impaired, whereas another may indicate a “clean bill of health” (see Cutting & Scarborough, 2006).
What’s the Best Way to Pinpoint Specific Comprehension Struggles?
The ideal solution would be to assess a child’s reading comprehension abilities in multiple formats. For example, after reading a passage the child would be asked to retell what was read, and then subsequently would respond to multiple choice questions about the text. If the two ways of assessing comprehension are significantly discrepant, it may be that this pattern of performance is not indicating a lack of reading comprehension ability, but rather reflecting that one type of format is putting a greater burden on certain aspects of that child’s cognitive profile. In the aforementioned case, if the child does well on multiple choice but poorly on free recall, it may be that the child has language and/or working memory problems that cause difficulty with a free recall format, which requires holding verbal information in memory to recall the text. However, multiple choice, which puts fewer demands on working memory, may be a better reflection of the child’s understanding of the text.
Another possible variable affecting reading comprehension assessment is when a teacher notices a child struggling with material in the classroom even though, when the child is formally assessed, no deficit is noted. In this case, it is important to realize that this “mis-match” may not necessarily be because the assessment is wrong or the teacher is right, or the reverse, but rather there may be a substantial discrepancy between the reading comprehension demands of the assessment versus those in the classroom.
With the increase of high-stakes testing, there has been more and more attention on reading comprehension performance and assessments. As educators and researchers examine how best to assess reading comprehension, we are learning that reading comprehension is not a monolithic entity, and that how we assess is just as important as what we assess. This consideration is important for all readers, but especially for those who appear to be struggling, either as captured on reading comprehension assessments or through more informal means. While more research is needed to fully understand the implications for different reading comprehension assessment formats, for now teachers should be aware that different ways of assessing comprehension can show highly variable results. These considerations should be taken into account as teachers develop lesson plans, as the implications are that some students may struggle with one form of assessment, but may appear fine when assessed in a different way. Therefore, teachers may want to consider building in multiple response formats for capturing a child’s comprehension of a text, and know that some children may have more difficulty with certain formats over others.
Dr. Laurie Cutting was a presenter in our spring Lead the Way to Literacy Webinar Series. Watch her webinar, or sign up for details on our complimentary fall literacy Leadership Talks.